Three former Popular Party (PP) treasurers are standing trial alongside 34 other defendants in what has been billed as one of Spain’s biggest ever corruption trials.
The so-called Gürtel case – which involves multiple accusations centred on Swiss bank accounts, money laundering, kickbacks, bribery, fake invoices and blackmail – came before prosecutors on Tuesday at Madrid’s national court, where protestors shouted abuse at defendants as they filed in to face a string of fraud charges.
Part of series of similar trials linked to alleged PP corruption, the case revolves around mutually-beneficial relationships developed between politicians and businesspeople during the ten-year Spanish construction boom that led up to the financial crisis in 2008.
Although none of the defendants on trial currently hold political office, the proceedings are expected to be an embarrassment for Spain’s acting Prime Minister and PP leader Mariano Rajoy, as many of the accused have close links to the party’s leadership.
The three former PP treasurers charged with wrongdoing include Luis Bárcenas, a former close ally of Rajoy. Bárcenas is accused of siphoning off €50 million and hiding it in Swiss bank accounts. Although it is not facing charges itself, the party is said to have benefitted from illegally obtained funds.
The fact that two prosecuting lawyers have already called Rajoy to give evidence at the trial suggests the case could raise serious questions not only about the fitness of the party to rule, but also over how much the country’s acting leader may have known about the allegations when he was General Secretary of the party in 2003 and 2004, a key period the trial is scrutinising.
Prosecutors will focus on the activities of businessman Francisco Correa, who stands accused of bribing senior PP officials in order to win public contracts in towns and cities controlled by the party. Correa, nicknamed “Don Vito” after the main character in the Godfather, has already spent three years in jail, and faces a sentence of 125 years if he is convicted of a range of fraud and money laundering charges.
Police in Spain began investigating Correa’s activities back in 2007, after a whistle-blower told authorities he was involved in corruption in Madrid. Then-civil servant Ana Garrido played a key role in exposing PP corruption when she discovered the mayor of a Madrid suburb was favouring a network of companies when handing out public contracts without due process. Correa denies any wrongdoing.
At the same time as the Gürtel trial gets underway, former International Monetary Fund chief Rodrigo Rato, who served as a PP Economy Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, is on trial for misusing corporate credit cards while heading up two leading Spanish banks.
Corruption is currently the second biggest concern for Spanish voters behind unemployment, according to an opinion poll conducted in February.